PHIL 2030: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Thursday April 10, 2014



[7.2.3.] A Procedure Suggested by the Categorical Imperative.


Kant’s Categorical Imperative suggests a procedure for deciding whether it is morally permissible to perform an action:


Step 1: Figure out “maxim” (a rule or principle of behavior) you would be following were you to perform that action.


This step seems pretty easy… if the action is doing a, then the rule will be: “Do a.”


Step 2: Figure out whether you can rationally will for that maxim to “become a universal law,” i.e., whether you can rationally will for everyone to follow that maxim, all the time.

·         If you can, then the maxim is “universalizable” and the action is morally permissible.

·         If you cannot, then the maxim is not “universalizable” and the action is immoral.


This procedure rules out a number of different rules… so an action that follows any of these rules is immoral:


A.     “For love of myself, I make it my principle to shorten my life when by a longer duration it threatens more evil than satisfaction.” (RTD 61) I.e., I will end my life in order to improve it, i.e., in order to make things better for myself.

·         On Kant’s view, this maxim is contradictory: “One immediately sees a contradiction in a system of nature, whose law would be to destroy life by the feeling whose special office [namely, self-love] is to impel the improvement of life.” (RTD 61)

·         So committing suicide in order to improve your life violates the Categorical Imperative and is immoral.


B.     “When I believe myself to be in need of money, I will borrow money and promise to repay it, although I know I shall never do so.” (RTD 61)

·         You cannot will that this become a universal law, because such a law would be self-defeating: if everyone followed this rule, then eventually no one would have any reason to believe anyone else was making such a promise in good faith – so people would stop lending money: “no one would believe what was promised to him but would only laugh at any such assertion as vain pretense.” (RTD 61)

·         So promising to repay a loan when you have no intention of repaying violates the Categorical Imperative, and is immoral.


C.     A man “finds in himself a talent which could, by means of some cultivation, make him in many respects a useful man. But he finds himself in comfortable circumstances and prefers indulgence in pleasure to troubling himself with broadening and improving his fortunate natural gifts. Now, however, let him ask whether his maxim of neglecting his gifts, besides agreeing with his propensity to idle amusement, agrees also with what is called duty.” His maxim is this: I will “let [my] talents rust and resolve to devote [my] life merely to idleness, indulgence, and propagation—in a word, to pleasure.”  (RTD 62)

·         No rational being can will that this maxim become a universal law or that “it should be implanted in us by a natural instinct.” This is because a rational being will necessarily recognize that any talent a person has, has been “given to him for all sorts of possible purposes.” (RTD 62)[1]


D.     “Let each one [i.e., each person] be as happy as heaven wills, or as he can make himself; I will not take anything from him or even envy him; but to his welfare or to his assistance in time of need I have no desire to contribute.” (RTD 62) In other words, ignore the well-being and needs of others.

·         You cannot will that this become a universal law, because as a rational being, you would not want others to ignore your well-being when you are in need: “instances can often arise in which he would need the love and sympathy of others, and in which he would have robbed himself, by such a law of nature springing from his own will, of all hope of the aid he desires.” (RTD 62)


So the Categorical Imperative implies that you should follow these rules:

·         You should never commit suicide in order to improve your life. [a duty to oneself that is “perfect”—it can never be violated, no matter what]

·         You should never promise to repay a loan when you know you won’t be able to. [a duty to others that is “perfect”—it can never be violated, no matter what]

·         You should cultivate your own talents. [a duty to oneself, but it can be overridden by a competing “perfect” duty”]

·         You should attend to the well-being and needs of others. [a duty to others but it can be overridden by a competing “perfect” duty”]


The first two rules do not allow for any exceptions whatsoever. No matter what the circumstances or the consequences, it is (on Kant’s view) never permissible to violate them. If you ever do either of these things, then you are behaving irrationally, since you cannot will that everyone else do the same.[2]


Kant says, not simply that you must accept The CI in order to be moral, but that you must accept The CI in order to be rational.  If you do not accept The CI, then you are behaving, not just immorally, but irrationally.



[7.3.] Kant’s Argument Against Lying.


We have seen that Kant took the Categorical Imperative to imply the following specific rules of morality (specific categorical imperatives):

·         Never commit suicide in order to improve your life.

·         Never promise to repay a loan when you know you won’t be able to.

·         Cultivate your own talents.

·         Attend to the well-being and needs of others.


Kant thought that the following was also a categorical imperative implied by the Categorical Imperative:

·         Never tell a lie.


On Kant’s view, you are always obligated to avoid lying, even if it means telling an inquiring murderer the location of his next victim (EMP 130). How could Kant possibly defend such a claim?  Here is his argument for the claim that you should never lie (adapted from EMP 130):




Kant’s “Categorical Imperative” Argument Against Lying


  1. We should perform only those actions that follow universalizable rules. [The Categorical Imperative]
  2. Every lie follows a non-universalizable rule (“Tell a lie”).
  3. Therefore, we should never lie.


AN EXPLANATION OF PREMISE 2… Why think that “Tell a lie” is a non-universalizable rule? Presently we assume that other people mean to tell us the truth unless we have some specific reason to think that they are being dishonest. This is why we trust what our friends and family tell us, and what we see and read in the news: there is a general presumption of honesty. But this would change if everyone adopted the rule “Tell a lie.” This rule is self-defeating: if everyone were to begin lying whenever they wanted to, then people would stop believing one another, so it would do no good to lie, and people would stop lying. If everyone were to begin following this rule, then eventually no one would be following it any more. This is why no rational being can will that everyone follow the rule: to will that everyone follow it amounts to willing that everyone begin lying AND cease lying. It is to will a contradiction.



If this argument is sound, then it is always immoral to lie, no matter what the circumstances. If it is not sound, then what exactly is wrong with it? Is it invalid? Or does it have a false premise? Or both?


[Rachels discusses another argument Kant gave for this conclusion, based on the idea that we can never be absolutely certain what the consequences of our actions will be; see EMP pp.130-31.]



[7.4.] Anscombe’s Criticism of Kant’s Argument.


Here I explain Elizabeth Anscombe’s criticism of Kant’s “Categorical Imperative” Argument Against Lying. I am reformulating the criticism a bit in the hopes of making it more obvious what Anscombe thinks is going wrong…


In order for Kant’s argument to be valid, it must include an implicit premise


implicit premise (df.): a premise that is not explicitly stated as part of the argument, but which is nonetheless being assumed by the person putting forward the argument.


Here is Kant’s argument again:


  1. We should perform only those actions that follow universalizable rules. [The Categorical Imperative]
  2. Every lie follows a non-universalizable rule (“Tell a lie”).
  3. Therefore, we should never lie.


As stated, it is INVALID. But it is valid if it assumes the following implicit premise…


What is the implicit premise that would make this argument valid, according to Anscombe?




(IP) No action follows BOTH a non-universalizable rule AND a universalizable rule.


[It is possible that Kant was assuming (IP) as he argued; in other words, it is possible that he was assuming (IP). This would explain why he thought this reasoning was valid.]


But (IP) is FALSE. One and the same action can follow BOTH a universalizable rule and a non-universalizable rule.


In the case of the inquiring murderer, if you choose to lie, then your action conforms to at least two rules:


(i)                 Tell a lie. [This rule is not universalizable.]


(ii)               Tell a lie when doing so will save an innocent person’s life. [This rule is universalizable, in that it is not self-defeating. It is possible to rationally will that everyone follow this rule, since everyone could continue following it into the indefinite future. Unlike the maxim that says “lie to get a loan,” the fact that everyone follows this maxim would not result in people no longer following the maxim. As Rachels points out, nearly everyone already follows this maxim!]



Lying in order to save an innocent person’s life follows both rules (it follows rule (i), and it follows rule (ii)).  So (IP) is false.


In summary, Anscombe’s criticism of Kant’s CI argument against lying is as follows:

·         if it does not include (IP), it is invalid;

·         if it does include (IP), it is valid, but it has at least one false premise.

Either way, it is an unsound argument.



[7.5.] The Valuable Lesson in Kant’s Ethical Theory.


Although Rachels does not accept Kant’s claim that the Categorical Imperative is the basis of all morality, he does think that we can derive a valuable lesson from Kant’s ethical theory. He explains that lesson as follows:


On Kant’s view, morality requires consistency. Morality applies to everyone the same way. The demands of morality are the same for everyone.  To think that some moral rules don’t hold for you, but that they do hold for other people, would be to violate the requirement of consistency.


An example: One way of being inconsistent is to accept a fact as a reason that justifies you doing x, but not to accept it as a reason that justifies someone else doing x. Illustrations:

·         Suppose I am at your house, get thirsty, and drink your beer without your permission. I cannot turn around and blame you if you do the same thing at my house on a later occasion.

·         Applying this lesson to the case of the inquiring murderer: Suppose that you think that it is right to lie to the inquiring murderer in order to keep him from discovering where your friend Harold is hiding. So you lie and the murderer runs off into the night. But the next day, Harold is being chased again, and once again runs to your place to hide. This time, you’re out, and your roommate (call him Kumar) answers the door. Kumar lies to the inquiring murderer, just like you did the night before. You cannot blame Kumar for doing what you did the night before; i.e., you cannot hold him blameworthy for lying to the inquiring murderer. There is no relevant difference between the first situation and the second; the situations are identical except that you answer the door in one case and Kumar answers in the second. To say that what you did was right but that what Kumar did was wrong is to be inconsistent.


So this is the valuable lesson Rachels says we should take from Kant’s moral theory: Morality requires consistency: i.e., moral rules are the same for everyone; no one is exempt from their force.


According to Rachels, Kant did not recognize that the claim that “moral rules are absolute” is ambiguous; it can mean either:

1.      they apply the same to everyone; morality doesn’t differ from person to person [this is the lesson that Rachels thinks is true]

2.      they always take the form: “Never do x, no matter what” [Rachels thinks this is false]

According to Rachels, Kant’s mistake was in accepting (2) rather that (1).




Stopping point for Thursday April 10. Reading for next time: the chapters in RTD by Pojman (“A Defense of the Death Penalty”) and Bright (“Why the United States Will Join the Rest of the World in Abandoning Capital Punishment”).


[1] It is not at all obvious why Kant thinks this is an illustration of the Categorical Imperative. Commentators disagree about how best to understand this example. J. Kemp has explained Kant’s point as follows: “What chiefly distinguishes man from the rest of creation, according to Kant, is his possession of freedom; this in turn depends on his possession of reason, not in the sense that he is capable of theoretical activity, but in the sense that he can set ends or purposes before himself (whereas the rest of creation can merely fulfil passively the purposes of nature). And this gives its point to the expression… ‘For as a rational being he necessarily wills...’. Whatever a man’s private aim or purpose in life may be, the fact that he has such a purpose is a sign of his rationality, even though all men, being imperfectly rational, have some purposes which they would not have if they were perfectly rational, and fail to have some which they would then have. Now any human purpose requires the exercise of some talent or capacity for its fulfilment; for a talent or capacity just is the ability to take appropriate means to given ends. Man’s ability to conceive of purposes would be of no value, and his freedom would be incomplete, if he were not also endowed with the capacity for discovering and adopting the best means for the attainment of those purposes. Hence to refuse to develop any of one's talents would be irrational; it would be failing to take rational means to the achievement of any of one’s aims or purposes, and all of us must have some such aims or (as we should more naturally say) desires. But why, it might be asked, should I not restrict my efforts to developing those talents which will enable me to live a more pleasant life; why should I worry about developing my moral capacities or increasing my ability to help others ? Because, Kant would reply, you are a man and a rational being, and to restrict the development of one’s capacities to those which provide an increase of pleasure for oneself is to put oneself on a level with the beasts, to behave in an inhuman and irrational way. It is because of this that a man cannot rationally assent to being a member of an order of nature in which self-development was universally neglected. Moreover, the use of reason, as manifested in the deliberate cultivation of one’s talents, in order merely to promote one’s own happiness is unlikely to be successful, human nature being what it is: ‘the more a cultivated reason concerns itself with the aim of enjoying life and happiness, the farther does man get away from true contentment.’” “Kant’s Examples of the Categorical Imperative,” Philosophical Quarterly 8 (30), 1958, 63-71, p.69.


[2] The first two principles express perfect duties, ones that must always be upheld. The second two express imperfect duties; one needs not uphold these at every waking moment. Rather, they obligate us to sometimes cultivate our talents, and to sometimes promote the well-being and needs of others.

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